Structural basis for activation of the complement system by component C4 cleavage

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Sep 18;109(38):15425-30. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1208031109. Epub 2012 Sep 4.


An essential aspect of innate immunity is recognition of molecular patterns on the surface of pathogens or altered self through the lectin and classical pathways, two of the three well-established activation pathways of the complement system. This recognition causes activation of the MASP-2 or the C1s serine proteases followed by cleavage of the protein C4. Here we present the crystal structures of the 203-kDa human C4 and the 245-kDa C4·MASP-2 substrate·enzyme complex. When C4 binds to MASP-2, substantial conformational changes in C4 are induced, and its scissile bond region becomes ordered and inserted into the protease catalytic site in a manner canonical to serine proteases. In MASP-2, an exosite located within the CCP domains recognizes the C4 C345C domain 60 Å from the scissile bond. Mutations in C4 and MASP-2 residues at the C345C-CCP interface inhibit the intermolecular interaction and C4 cleavage. The possible assembly of the huge in vivo enzyme-substrate complex consisting of glycan-bound mannan-binding lectin, MASP-2, and C4 is discussed. Our own and prior functional data suggest that C1s in the classical pathway of complement activated by, e.g., antigen-antibody complexes, also recognizes the C4 C345C domain through a CCP exosite. Our results provide a unified structural framework for understanding the early and essential step of C4 cleavage in the elimination of pathogens and altered self through two major pathways of complement activation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Binding Sites
  • Complement C4 / chemistry*
  • Crystallography / methods
  • HEK293 Cells
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Mannans / chemistry
  • Mannose-Binding Protein-Associated Serine Proteases / chemistry
  • Molecular Conformation
  • Mutation
  • Protein Binding
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Structure, Tertiary
  • Proteins / chemistry
  • Proteolysis
  • Recombinant Proteins / chemistry
  • Static Electricity
  • Substrate Specificity


  • Complement C4
  • Mannans
  • Proteins
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • MASP2 protein, human
  • Mannose-Binding Protein-Associated Serine Proteases

Associated data

  • PDB/4FXG
  • PDB/4FXK